Southeast Asia: A Second Front in the Fight Against Terrorism?

The threat posed by ISIS not only to the Philippines, but to the whole region, should not be underestimated. The recent seizure of the southern Philippine city of Marawi by militants aligned with the Islamic State, alarmed Malaysia and Indonesia, whose poorly defended borders with the Philippines are very vulnerable to external penetration.

Historically, the island of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago always represented a very difficult problem for the colonial masters of the Philippines. The Spanish did not manage to suppress the local Muslims for three centuries. The Americans, who occupied the Philippines in the early 20th century, also failed to fully integrate the southern regions of the archipelago in its only Asian colony.

In the years of independence, there is also no peace in the South of the Philippines. Although the natural resources of this region are huge, it remains the most economically backward region of the country. In the second half of the 20th century, almost simultaneously, the radical left rebel movement, and the armed formations of Muslims were created, originally represented by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), then the Abu Sayyaf group, and now ISIS (banned in Russia). At the same time, the various support provided to jihadists from the outside has been and remains the most important reason of the survivability of religious separatism.

Will the second front of the fight against terrorism be opened in the Southeast Asia? The Americans have already opened it after the events of September 11, 2001. Back then, they sent their special forces units to the south of the Philippines to fight against Abu Sayyaf, but, as it turned out, they did not achieve any results.

The events in Mindanao have a very long history, and several drones provided by the US to the Philippine army are unlikely to resolve the problem. Do Americans understand this? If so, is a full-scale US military operation in the Philippines possible? The world has now entered into a period of turbulence and nothing can be excluded anywhere.

Today, thousands natives of the Southeast Asian countries fight in the Middle East in the ranks of ISIS. In a relatively short time ISIS could be defeated in the Middle East. Where do they go? The most obvious way is returning home, where they will only take advantage of the skills acquired in Syria and neighboring countries. If precisely such a scenario begins to unfold in Marawi, then the alarm bell in the region is fully justified.

Victor Sumsky is Director of the ASEAN Center at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.